A black squall hangs low between two spits of white limestone — points we have to cross to reach Croatia’s Kornati National Park — and at all of 18 hours aboard, the Aeolian gods, the Greek gods of wind, are teaching us a lesson. The seas are confused, and our chartered Elan 434 sailboat pitches too hard for the autopilot to keep up. Nearby lightning strikes shock the helmsman through the wheel.
“Surmountable adversity is very unifying,” says Kim Binsted, a NASA specialist in crew composition, from her warm perch in the companionway. She had chartered our bareboat from Croatia Yacht Club and selected five adults — some strangers, some old friends — to join her weeklong vacation. “Of course, if the crew fails to surmount adversity, it can have the opposite effect — that is, we will all blame each other.”
She’s only joking a little. Rather than cruising idly among sun-bleached islands of lavender fields and cedars, we are being pasted by southerly jugo winds, colloquially known as the “bad wind.” The stakes for a summer sailing holiday are significantly lower than for a three-year mission to Mars, but you couldn’t tell that to some of our lesser experienced crew.
Croatia spoke to us like a memory, some lost world where cobblestone streets, hanging balconies and red roofs roast under a high summer sun, where rosemary-perfumed mistrals would blow us to secluded island harbors. Binsted had summoned us to her vessel, and we answered the call. Our crew consists of Binsted; Tammy Castleforte, a former Army captain; and Kenny Longenecker, a marine biologist and our de facto captain — all of whom are next-door neighbors in Hawaii. Then there’s Paul Betney, a stand-up comedian from Liverpool in the U.K. who decided to see the world as crew on tall ships. And me. I live in Manhattan, an island off the coast of America.
The start was shaky even before the storm. “For us to unify, the adversity should be an outside force,” Binsted says. An ill-timed wienerschnitzel detour in Vienna had cost Castleforte and Longenecker a connecting flight, and the pricey overnight train ride left them simmering in mutual resentment. “Conflict within a crew, obviously, is not unifying.”
Croatia is not undiscovered, not now. It is the heart of the millennial rave circuit, a bull’s-eye for cheap European package holidays. But for the private yacht, Dalmatia’s coast is still a magnificently lonely place, a fleet of empty islands just across the Adriatic from the Italian boot.
We arrange to meet and provision in Trogir, a fortress built on the fortunes of emperors and invaders; Roman caesars, Byzantine princes, Venetian doges, Napoleon and Tito have all claimed dominion in the ornate walled city. Across the canal from the old town is a covered market where Adriatic bounty is for sale: tomatoes, plums, figs, hand-hewn sausages, cheeses and olive oils. We buy a ham. No one had ever owned an entire ham before, hoof and all. As insignificant an exercise as shopping might be, we unwind in the market stalls. Astronauts lose weight in space in no small part because eating is an essentially communal act; MREs are isolating and dull. We discover what NASA has spent millions to learn: Meal planning builds cohesiveness. “Cooking is a way to show care for your crew mates,” Binsted says.
As quickly as the storm comes upon us that first day, it yields to the promised light thermals and robin’s-egg-blue skies. By dusk, we are in port at Uvala Opat, adversity ticked off our list. Knee-deep in bonding, the single crew members disembark for a hike, pretending we had no idea a couple was reconciling in the V-berth. Astronaut crews develop “useful fictions” as a coping mechanism in tight quarters, Binsted says. In the simulated Martian habitat on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, which she directs, crew members are granted a limited number of sick days. “You just say, I’m sick today — leave me alone.”
It is the chronic irony of sailing that we are alone at sea and yet cannot escape the myopic familiarity of our crew mates. First mate Betney, the comedian, is the stranger among us. He knew only Binsted before the charter began, but he is a tall, lionhearted Scouser who jokes easily and laughs often. Since the launch of the International Space Station, integrating outsiders into crews has been a concern for NASA, Binsted says. “You might have just one Russian cosmonaut in with a bunch of American astronauts, or vice versa.”
Our group might never have met Betney in any other circumstance, but he makes himself easy to love, sweating his way to the top of a barren peak, staring down on the blue slipper of a bay. Cruising north through the park, motoring as much as raising sail, we bask in the middle-age calm of a place with few people and no discos, where the community of cruisers is more likely to include grandparents and babies than DJs spinning beats. At Telašćia Nature Park, moored beside a pine forest, we hang jugs of black wine off the lifelines and wake in the morning to the braying of wild donkeys. The supermarket motors up soon after: a dinghy bearing fresh tomatoes, hot bread and home-brewed fruit brandies.
Dalmatia’s jugo winds are credited with the grumpy posture of fjaka, a kind of national harrumph that is said to make Croatians lazy when the sultry gusts stir. It brings on headaches, bad judgment and criminal lethargy — apocryphally, it’s even been used as a defense in murder trials. But we discover an entirely upbeat version that includes sunning on deck, Sudoku and, once we drop the hook, improvised cocktails. (Dalmatian Sunset, The Split, Fjakalicious — I forget the recipes.)
I retreat to the galley. The ingredients of the Adriatic are so compelling, fresh and basic, erupting out of 16 hours’ sunlight — herbal, citrusy, lamb, rabbit — I find fjaktastic joy in nourishing a crew who makes me so happy. Cruisers note a division of labor into “pink jobs” and “blue jobs,” female versus male, where in space the division tends more toward science versus engineering. On a three-year trip to Mars, however, NASA is keen to see how crews will divide the tasks of everyday life, says Binsted, who also crewed a Mars simulation on Devon Island in the Canadian high Arctic. “We have found there is often chore swapping. So, in the Arctic, I ended up swapping my cleaning chores for cooking, which seemed like a damn good trade too.”
Our final port takes us beyond the parks to Kaprije, population 143, literally the Capri of Dalmatia in Italian (Capri di Dalmazia). It’s a bayside village on a car-free island so rocky that Kaprijians are compelled to build walls, generation after generation, mazes and buttresses to nowhere, just to squeeze in another olive tree. Crumbling houses are festooned with bougainvillea and runaway creepers. It’s a time machine, the place we imagined when we decided to see these old islands in such an intimate way.
Sipping the first of many beers on the stucco promenade, Binsted explains how the week aboard has worked so perfectly: “Our crew saw ‘cohesion’ as a mission task, rather than something abstract — that is, cohesion is something to do, rather than a state you hope to find yourself in.” The clock tower strikes 6. She orders another round of Karlovaco beer for everyone at the table. “And it’s something to succeed at. NASA crews are very success-oriented.”